Saturday 31 March 2012

PALM/PASSION SUNDAY - The Crown hangs on the Cross - Isa 50;4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Mk 14:1-15:47

In the past, the fifth Sunday of Lent (the Sunday before Palm Sunday) was known as Passion Sunday. However, following Vatican II, the sixth Sunday of Lent was officially re-named Passion Sunday. This Sunday is also called Palm Sunday, since palm branches are still distributed.  However, the focus this Sunday is on the betrayal, arrest, suffering and crucifixion of Jesus rather than on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem just before his death. Passion/Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week, in which the Church commemorates the Last Supper and the first Eucharist on Holy Thursday, and Christ's death on Good Friday. What Jesus experiences is a manifestation of God's overwhelming love for each one of us.  Further, by identifying with the 'mystery' of Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection, we experience a great liberation, a ‘Passover,' from various forms of sin and enslavement to a life of joy and freedom. 
Today's liturgy combines both a sense of “triumph” and “tragedy”. At the beginning, we commemorate the triumph of Christ our King.  This is done through the blessing of palms, the procession, and the singing. In the liturgy of the word, we hear the story of the sufferings and indignities to which Jesus was subjected. However, we keep in mind that, even in this “tragedy,” there is “triumph”. Even in his Passion, the Palms continue to be present. This is because Christ came for precisely this purpose, to save in, and through, his death. 
The first reading for the liturgy of the Eucharist is from the prophet Isaiah. The part of Isaiah written in exile (Chapters 40-55) contains four servant songs, sections that interrupt the flow of the book but that have a definite unity between them. The first (42:1-7), which begins “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen ...” introduces the suffering servant of Yahweh.  In the second (49:1-7), the servant, abused and humiliated, is commissioned anew. In the third (our first reading), the servant is disciplined and strengthened by suffering.  In the fourth song, to be read on Good Friday (52:17-53:12), even the Gentiles are in awesome contemplation before the suffering and rejected servant. In late Judaism, the suffering servant of Yahweh was seen as the perfect Israelite, one of supreme holiness, a messiah. In the gospels, Jesus identifies himself with, and is identified as the servant, the one who frees all people. He will accept, like the servant of Isaiah, without rebellion and in total obedience, God’s will for him. Even in his suffering and ignominy, he is confident that God will vindicate him.
This vindication and exaltation forms the last part of the kenosis hymn of Paul. The hymn succinctly summarizes the whole of salvation history. It begins with the pre-existence of Christ, moves on to his incarnation and mission and then, narrates his passion and death on the cross. It is only then that the hymn speaks of his resurrection and exaltation. However, there is no room for any kind of triumphalism here! There is no room for a feel-good religion that does not take its servant role seriously. There is no room for a victory that does not first know the "fellowship of His sufferings" on behalf of others.  There is no room for piety that does not pour out, yes, even totally empties itself for the interests of others.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who poured out his own life at the hands of the Nazis because he refused to allow the church to be the tool of oppression, wrote: “The church is the church only when it exists for others. . . . The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. . . . It must not underestimate the importance of human example which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus.”
We who profess holiness need the unity of mind and purpose to which Paul is calling the Philippians. We need to see ourselves in terms of our obligations to the community of those "in Christ" of which we claim to be a part. Maybe we need to see ourselves less in terms of "those who never sin" and more in terms of "those who serve”. Maybe we need to see ourselves in terms of the Servant-Christ, the "man for others," who bends himself to struggle for the wholeness and healing of a wounded world. Maybe we need to reexamine our own values that have been so subtly shaped by the success-oriented society around us. We need to see if we are acting in a manner worthy of the heavenly citizenship we claim. For Paul, to claim that citizenship meant to have a mind-set different from others. It meant a commitment to being a servant.  It meant living a life poured out in service to others, a life totally emptied of self.
The passion story, as told by Mark, arrests us because in it we find God coming to us in utter vulnerability. The Father seems absent and silent. He does not act in might, power and vengeance to stop sinful people from doing their worst to Jesus, his Son. It looks as if the Father has abandoned his beloved Son. Why doesn't he do something? Where is God when a righteous Son is gasping for air on a Roman cross? Why is he silent? Why does he not send ten thousand angels and save his Son? God remains silent until the fury of human defiance and sin carries out, to the fullest extent, its gruesome imaginations. When the life of the Son of God is snuffed out, it is then that God speaks. He speaks loud and clear. He speaks, not in vengeance, counter-attack, or destruction. God does not kill Pilate, the Roman soldiers, the high priests, or the passers-by. Instead, he splits a curtain and makes himself open and available by abandoning the temple and teaching, through this sign, that true worship is now no longer in the Temple or sanctuary, but on the cross. It is at that point that the Roman soldiers realize how pitiful and puny they are and all their bravado melts away.  It is at that point that the Centurion proclaims, "Truly this man was God’s Son!" God acts in strange ways.
Jesus "emptied himself" totally and in so doing, became filled with the Spirit of his Father.  He clung to nothing; he let go of everything. Do we have the courage to do likewise?

Friday 30 March 2012

Impatience is trying to go faster than the Holy Spirit. Are you by nature impatient? Ezek 37:21-28; Jn 11:45-56

The first two verses of today can be seen as the conclusion of the miracle story of the raising of Lazarus. While some of those who witnessed the miracle respond positively, others do not. However, the number of those who believe is more than that of those who do not as is evident in the use of “many” for those who believed and “some” for those who did not. The chief priests and Pharisees respond to the information they receive about the miracle by calling a meeting during which they discuss the fate of Jesus. Their main concern seems to be their own loss of power. They do not seem really interested in the destruction of the temple or even Jerusalem but with the effect that Jesus’ popularity will have on their own selfish interests.
Caiaphas who was high priest speaks on behalf of all of them. Even as he wants Jesus to die so that greater trouble can be avoided, he is in fact unknowingly prophesying about the true meaning of the death of Jesus. Though his sole aim is political expediency, he is collaborating in God’s plan of salvation for the whole of the human race. He uses his power to suppress God’s word but in effect witnesses to him. In his death Jesus would gather together all the scattered people of God to bring them to a union and unity never witnessed before.
Jesus retreats to Ephraim after the Sanhedrin’s decision. This retreat, however, is not to escape death but to control its time. Jesus will not go to his death until his hour arrives. It is God who decides that hour and no amount of human plotting or planning can hasten its arrival.
Even as the Passover draws near, questions remain about whether Jesus will come to the feast or not. It is not clear whether those who are looking for him have a positive or malicious intent. The question, however, reinforces the idea that Jesus acts not according to the will of human beings but of God and if God so ordains then no matter what the threat or consequence, Jesus will do what is required.

God’s ways are not our ways. As high as the heavens are from the earth so are God’s ways different from ours. It is not always possible to accept this simple truth and there are times when we try to go faster than the Holy Spirit because of our impatience. We are reminded as we reflect on today’s readings that there will be numerous times when we will knowingly or unknowingly try to upset the plans of God because they do not fit in with what we think is good for us. At times like these we too behave like the adversaries of Jesus. We have to realize that no matter how much we try we will never be able to upset God’s will for the world though it might seem sometimes that we have and can. When we witness evil overpowering good, selfishness dominating selflessness or fear overtaking love, then it might seem that we have done so. However, these “victories’ are only temporary as was the victory of the ones who crucified Jesus on the cross. In the final race it is always God who wins, it is always selflessness that come first and it is always love that will overcome.

Thursday 29 March 2012

How will you make Jesus visible today? Jer 20:10-13; Jn 10:31-42

The text of today begins with the Jews picking up stones to stone Jesus. While the immediate context is the last words of Jesus in his response to who he is, namely “The Father and I are one”, this reaction must also be seen in the larger context of the revelations that Jesus has been making. Jesus’ question to the Jews immediately after their attempt to stone him is indicative of this. He asks them for which of his good works they want to stone him. In response they accuse Jesus of blasphemy. Though it is true that Jesus is equal to God, they do not realize that it is not he who makes such a claim on his own accord. It is God who confirms him. Jesus uses “their” law to prove his claims and disprove theirs. He begins by citing the first half of Ps 82:6 in which human beings are regarded as “gods” because they receive the Word of God and then goes on to prove from the lesser to the greater, that thus it cannot be blasphemy if Jesus speaks of himself as God’s Son. It is the Father who sanctified and thus set apart Jesus and sent him into the world and thus he always does what the Father commands him to do.
Jesus goes on to appeal to his works as a proof of the fact that he has indeed been sent by God. His works, which are in keeping with God’s plan for the world, are clear indication that he and the Father are one. He is in the Father and the Father is in him. To be able to recognize this is to come to faith. These words do not go down well with the listeners who try to arrest him. Again as in the past Jesus escapes because his hour had not yet come.
The last three verses of the text look back to 1:28 and to John’s witness of Jesus at Bethany. John’s witness and then truth of that witness manifested in Jesus leads people to believe in Jesus.

In these verses, Jesus does not claim to be another God or to replace God or even make himself equal to God. He claims to make God known as never before. He reveals God as loving Father and as one whose only will for the world is its salvation. This is evident in the works that he performs, which are works of unconditional and redeeming love.
Jesus’ offer of recognizing him in the world is an offer that is relevant and available even today. The “good works” he inaugurated are on view whenever one goes beyond oneself and reaches out in love and compassion. They are continued when one speaks an enhancing word or performs a loving action. There are visible in selfless service and forgiveness. They are visible when love is made real.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Will you look for the revelation of God in everything that happens to you today? Gen 17:3-9; Jn 8:51-59

The consequence of keeping Jesus’ word is the destruction of death itself, since his word is a life giving word and can only result in life. This promise of Jesus is misunderstood by the listeners. They attack Jesus’ identity by appealing to Abraham and the fact that he died. Since Abraham died, the words of Jesus cannot be true. They thus accuse Jesus of being possessed by a demon. They keep challenging Jesus by asking him whether he is greater than Abraham. While the question here assumes a negative response, for the one who has accepted Jesus, the response can only be positive. Jesus is indeed greater than Abraham and all the prophets. The reason for this is that Jesus does not glorify himself. It is the Father himself who glorifies Jesus. It is the God in whom the Jews believe who glorifies Jesus. The Jews claim to “know” him, but in reality do not. It is Jesus who knows and reveals the Father and so anyone who refuses to believe in this revelation is shutting him/herself out from the truth and so indulging in lies and falsehood.
For the first time here Jesus himself appeals to Abraham to prove his claims. However, by the use of the distancing “your ancestor Abraham” Jesus indicates on the one hand that there is a distance between him and his listeners and on the other that while they may have Abraham as their ancestor (father) he has only God as his. Even so it is Abraham their father who also testified to Jesus when the grace was given to him by God to “see” Jesus’ day. He did see it and rejoiced in it. Here too the Jews misunderstand Jesus. They appeal to chronology, not realizing that Jesus goes beyond time and space. The double “Amen” with which Jesus responds is an indication on the one had of a new teaching and on the other of a deep revelation. While on the one hand there is a contrast of tenses: the past (Abraham was) and the present (I am), on the other hand the “I am” saying is used here in the absolute sense indicating that Jesus identifies himself with God. Jesus is infinitely greater than Abraham since Jesus is one with God.
The Jews respond to this revelation by wanting to stone Jesus because they consider it blasphemy. However, since his hour had not yet come, Jesus cannot be touched.

As human beings we often set limits on ourselves. While this is bad enough, we often also go further and set limits on God. We decide in advance what God can and cannot do and so miss out on mystery and miracle. Our stereotypes and closed minds result in our missing out on the revelation that God continues to make to us. In our understanding of who God is or how God reveals himself, it is important for us to note that with our finite minds we will never be able to totally fathom the depths of this mystery. We are limited by space and time, but God is not. Thus, it is important to open our minds as fully as we can and even after we have done this to know that there will still be much that we do not and can never know.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

What is the falsehood that is binding you? Will you let go of it and allow the truth to set you free? Dan 3:14-20, 24-25, 28; Jn 8:31-40

The verses which form the text for today contain what may be seen as the fundamental lines of debate and disagreement between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. In these verses the succeeding verse builds up on the preceding one and thus intensifies the debate. The sayings are addressed to the Jews who “believed in him”. Though these do, their faith seems inadequate as is seen in their response to Jesus to come to the truth. The truth that Jesus refers to here is not an abstract principle but the presence of God in Jesus. The recognition of this truth results in a person’s being set free. The words “will make you free’ result in upsetting the listeners who protest that since they are Abraham’s descendants they are naturally free. However, they do not realize that in rejecting Jesus they are also rejecting Abraham and so are not really his descendants and consequently not free. Since freedom is a gift, it cannot be earned or acquired through one’s antecedents. It is made visible in the actions that one performs. If one performs sinful actions, then one is a slave and so not free. Though the Jews claim to be descendents of Abraham, their actions do not correspond to their claim. They are guilty of the sinful action of trying to kill Jesus. Freedom is possible only through the Son who alone can make free because he is the Truth. In order to receive this freedom one must be able to recognize the truth of who Jesus is. This they cannot do.

Monday 26 March 2012

Are you able to experience like Jesus joy even in the midst of your pain? Num 21:4-9; Jn 8:21-30

The words which begin today’s text continue the theme of Jesus’ departure begun in 8:14. Here, it is his death, resurrection and ascension which will be the focus. Though God has revealed himself in Jesus, the Jewish leaders have refused to recognize him. This is the sin in which they will die. When Jesus speaks of his departure, he is misunderstood. The Jewish leaders think of suicide, but Jesus speaks of laying down his life of his own accord for the salvation of all. The reason why they misunderstand is because they and Jesus stand on opposite sides. They are from below and of this world, Jesus is from above and not of this world. If they want to change their position, they can only do so by recognizing in Jesus, God. The leaders are not able to do this and show that they have completely misunderstood Jesus in the question they ask. Jesus affirms that he has told them from the beginning who he is. He is the one sent by God and it is God who affirms and confirms him.
When they “lift up” Jesus on the Cross (which can also be translated as “exalt” and so mean resurrection and ascension) then they will recognize him. This statement of being “lifted up” or “exalted’ is the second of the three such statements in the Gospel of John. The first appears in 3:14 and the third in 12:32-34. In these two cases because of the use of the passive voice, the suggestion is that God will do the exalting. It is only here that the responsibility for the “lifting up” is thrust on the people. Thus, even as they crucify him, they will also exalt him and in this act recognize him as the one who is. Even when on the cross Jesus will not be alone because the Father will be with him.
Jesus’ words touch the hearts of many who hear him and they come to believe.

Jesus’ coming into the world was not primarily to die but to save. Yet, if this salvation could only be achieved through his death on a cross, then so be it. Jesus was willing for it if this was to be the only way. He was also aware that because of his faith, trust and confidence in the Father that his crucifixion or being lifted up on the cross would also be his resurrection and ascension, his being exalted. Even as he is crucified, the very ones who crucify him realize that what they have done is nailed love incarnate to the cross. This love accepts, forgives and continues to love even from the cross.